Some Important Lessons From Disney – About Measles and Vaccines

This will be quite a quick post as I am short on time and a lot has been written on the subject already (by much better and more important bloggers than me, see below). But it’s a news story that has had very little attention in the UK* so I wanted to share it: Over the Holidays there was an Outbreak of Measles at Disneyland in California, the disease is still spreading. To date at least 70 people are known to have caught the disease and that number is growing all the time (It was 57 when I started drafting this post). Understandably this isn’t big news over here but it is a story that provides us with a few valuable reminders about why we have vaccination programs:

1- Measles isn’t a mild disease.
The most recent stories I’ve seen about the Disney outbreak say that a quarter of those infected have had to be hospitalised. Mild diseases do not put 1 in 4 people in hospital. However, I don’t want to put too much emphasis on that figure as I’m not sure how reliable it is. I could quote all the well established stats about the risks of death, brain damage pneumonia etc. but you can find them in plenty of other places. What I’m going to do instead is give you one of those totally unscientific anecdotes:

I had measles as a small child. It was f***ing hideous.

Thankfully I don’t remember it in detail and I came out with no long term harm. But I do recall being in bed, feeling hot, miserable and covered in spots, with my even littler sister ill beside me. My Mum says she had to put sunglasses on me and darken the room as my inflamed eyes couldn’t bear any light**. Even if none of the victims of the current outbreak suffer any complications, that’s still 70 people going through that misery needlessly, if the reported hospitalisation rate is true then things are much worse.

2- Measles is really really contagious.
Someone incubating Ebola but not yet showing symptoms could spend days at Disneyland and they wouldn’t pass it on to anyone. It’s a terrifying disease but you can only catch it by direct contact with the body fluids of some already suffering (or dead) from it. Measles, by comparison is a world champion at spreading itself about. You can catch it from someone without ever even meeting them. If someone incubating measles, but showing no symptoms sneezed in a room and then walked out, you could go into that room two hours later and catch the virus from droplets still hanging in the air. So it’s hardly surprising that it has been passed on in a theme park crammed full of thousands of kids, many of whom are from the local area which has a high rate of-guess what? Middle class parents who read some stuff on the internet and now won’t vaccinate their kids. Looking at it that way, the only surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner.

3- This isn’t just someone else’s problem.
It would be pretty easy to think: “bloody stupid Californian hippies, risking their children by not vaccinating.” Then move on, feeling comforted and probably a bit smug that it doesn’t effect us, we’re smart, we vaccinate our kids, our kids are safe.  Certainly most of those involved in the outbreak were unvaccinated (or hadn’t had both doses) and most of them were unvaccinated because of their or their parents choice. Most, but not all. Disney attracts young children and with young children often come even younger siblings. Several of the victims are babies who were simply too young to have been vaccinated yet. There are also a few fully vaccinated people who have just gotten really really unlucky.

The MMR vaccine is very effective, with 2 doses 99% of people will be fully immune. But that does leave that little 1% who for some reason don’t produce a good, long term, immune response. If everyone has the jabs that doesn’t matter at all, the virus won’t be able to spread and will never get anywhere near that 1%. But put 50,000 vaccinated people in an amusement park with one unvaccinated carrier of a disease as contagious as measles and you don’t need to be all that great at maths to figure out what might happen.

So yeah it’s a long way away and my kids are fully vaccinated, but that doesn’t mean I can just ignore it. I feel really sorry for all those suffering the measles right now. Even, perhaps especially, those kids whose parents’ grasp of biological reality is so poor that they left their little ones exposed to a potential killer. But I’m also angry that those same parents got to choose what happened to other people’s kids, to those babies and that 1%. I’m angry that it could happen here, where my kids are and that somewhere, at some point, there will be another pointless, preventable death.

Ok so that wasn’t very short and it got pretty ranty at the end there, as I said, it makes me angry. If you still want to know more about this, here are a few good reads from over the pond:

Tara Haelle in Forbes
Tara Again (’cause she’s ace)
Orac at Science blogs
The NY Times Motherlode

12.2.15- Edited to add – I try not to call anti vax parents stupid, I know it’s a complex issue and all, but this song did make me laugh:


*Of course while I was writing this the Guardian beat me to it.

**It’s not entirely clear why I wasn’t vaccinated, this was before the MMR was introduced but there was a single jab available (I’m not that old!). My parents are lovely and not anti vax conspiracists, so my best guess is that it got missed in the confusion and worry caused by a big scare over the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine that was going on at the time.

NB: Disney seem to be responding very responsibly to the outbreak. Several staff were among those infected and they are now taking steps to ensure all staff are vaccinated and immune. They are also telling unvaccinated kids to stay away.

4 responses to “Some Important Lessons From Disney – About Measles and Vaccines”

  1. Agree with every word – it makes me so angry that unsubstantiated pseudoscience leads to entirely avoidable and potentially lethal diseases being spread, especially to vulnerable infants.


  2. Thanks Cathy. I usually try not to get angry with the individual parents, I know most genuinely want to do what they think is best for their children but occasionally I just get cross and frustrated that there are terrible diseases we could have wiped off the planet if only everyone did their bit.


  3. I do totally agree – I am very pro-vaccination, and it makes so cross that some parents are putting their (and my!) kids at risk because they listened to someone who made unsubstantiated claims years ago!


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